Sunday, January 17, 2010

What Happens When the Wine Gives Out? -- A Homily for Proper 2, Year C, 2010

Homily for Proper 2, Year C, 2010
Sunday, January 17th, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 2:1-12


“Jesus did this, the first of his signs in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
--John 2:11


What happens when the wine gives out? Most of us have been to a party, or have given a party where something dreadfully embarrassing has happened. In the grand scheme of things such embarrassing moments are rarely of cosmic significance. We forgive our hosts or we forgive ourselves for the faux pas, and we move on. Therefore, it is curiously interesting when Jesus chooses to intervene in just such a prosaic moment, when the wine gives out at a wedding feast, and turns water into wine. At first he shrugs off the request of his mother to do something, “what is this to you and to me, woman?” Yet, ultimately, he acquiesces and we learn, in fact, that his presence in the midst of the mundane has been an occasion for the revelation of God’s glory, for we are told that because of this his disciples believed in him. This was to be the first of his seven signs.

Scripture is filled with ordinary moments. For this we ought to be grateful. Those who do not read the Bible or know it, assume that it is a book that is ethereal and heavenly. While there is no doubt that it is a sacred book, those of us who read it, or listen to its words week by week, know that it is filled with ordinary people, dysfunctional families, weddings feasts gone wrong, loved ones dying unjustly, communities fighting amongst themselves, and so on. At Cana, Jesus is present for one of those moments that may seem so familiar to us, the party gone wrong. Thus, Scripture is not above us or distant from our reality, but a part of our reality. It is our story first and foremost not because we are a people of faith, but simply because we are people, plain and simple.

Into the midst of our ordinary lives, God enters in. God enters in not to rescue us from such a world, but to redeem and transform the world. Thus, we speak of the Incarnation, or literally, the “enfleshment” of God as the nexus of our faith. We do not worship a God who whisks us up, up and away from the world, rather we proclaim God among us as Christ crucified. And God among us changes things. God among us changes us. God among us changes the world. This is what happens at Cana – God uses the mundane moment of a party gone wrong to turn the hearts of a people from fear to faith.

It may seem glib to compare the experience of a first century party gone wrong with the terrible events this week in Haiti. They are on opposite extremes of the human experience. Yet, there is a thread that runs through both events, namely, the human question, “does God really care about us.” At that wedding feast in Cana when the wine ran out, Jesus’ response seems dismissive and aloof, “what is that to you and to me?” Amidst the destruction in Haiti, and in so many other disasters, the same observation might be made. Where is God? It seems as if God sits in his heaven and proclaims “what is this to you and to me?”

As the images of the destruction of Port-au-Prince cascade before our eyes, we will inevitably ask the question, “Why?” Why has this happened? Why did God allow this to happen? Was this the will of God? Does God even care? Many years ago I recall seeing an interview with the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and Cambridge Physicist, who was deeply concerned about the dialogue between faith and science. He was asked about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake in which thousands were killed, many in the Cathedral Church that collapsed, “was it the will of God that those people should die?” Polkinghorne responded, “I believe it is the will of God that the plates of the earth should move in accordance with their nature.” While the answer rings true to me on both a rational and theological level, it does not console me on a pastoral level. I think it will not console those in Haiti this week. Thus I look elsewhere to try to understand.

Nearly twenty years ago, I read Eli Wiesel’s semi-autobiographical fictional account of the holocaust, Night. It featured a terrifying scene in which a young boy was hanged with two other men for stocking arms. Wiesel writes,

"For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him…Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows…’" (pp. 70-72)

For many years I have struggled with what this passage was intended to mean. Did Wiesel intend it to characterize the absence and abandonment of God? Did he seek to say that Judaism itself was dead? Did he mean to suggest that God was dead? Or did he mean something else? I suppose I shall never really know what Wiesel meant or intended, but I cannot help but feel and see the story of my own God in this brief but horrifying excerpt, a God who hung on the gallows to share our human suffering.

The Christian God is not a God who swoops in and carries people out of danger. He does not engineer miraculous escapes. This may, at first seem the meaning of the story of Cana, of stepping in and saving the day by turning water into wine. But, I think something much deeper is happening in this story. We are told by John that it is a sign. What does the sign signify? I believe it communicates the reality that God does care deeply about us, so much so that he joins us in the crisis. He is the God who is with us in the disasters of our lives suffering alongside us. Where is God? He is at the banquet when the wine runs out. Where is God? He is amongst the rubble of Port-au-Prince and the suffering of the people. Where is God? He is hanging on a tree.

Closer to home, there is barely a week that goes by when the Canon and I do not receive at least one phone call in which we receive word that a member of this parish or someone beloved of them has cancer or some other devastating illness. There is barely a week that goes by when we do not receive a phone call from the Kane, Marshall or Jerrett Funeral Homes asking us to journey with a family who has just lost someone dear. There is barely a week that goes by when we do not see suffering in this parish family and community. It would be easy to believe God has abandoned us. It would be easy to believe that God is dead. It would be easy to cease to believe in God at all. But that would be the easy way out, would it not?

It is harder to believe when we live in a world in which the plates of the earth act in accordance with their nature. It is harder to believe when we live in a world in which cancer and aids ravage our friends and strokes damage the minds and bodies of our loved ones. It is harder to believe when we live in this fragile world in which the wine so readily gives out. However, God hanging on tree means something very different to us. God hanging on a tree means that in cancer, in earthquake, fire and flood, and yes, even in a party gone wrong, God is with us. God is with us in the crisis, God is with us in our angst, God is with us when death surrounds us. God is with us when the wine gives out. When the world comes crashing around us literally and figuratively and we so desperately long to be whisked away, God joins us in our pain. As we encounter God hanging from the tree, then something miraculous happens that appears to contradict reason, we come to believe. The miracle of Cana was not that water was turned into wine, rather that when it seemed like God did not care, they realized his presence in their midst, and in that revelation of his love, they came to believe. Thus, the miracle of water into wine is not deliverance from affliction, strife and need; rather it is the transformation our fear into hope, and the assurance of God with us, even in affliction, strife and need.

c. 2010 the Rev. Daniel F. Graves