Sunday, January 17, 2016

The New Wine Is Better
(Drinking in the Uncertainty of New Creation)

A homily preached on these lessons, February 17, 2016, at St. Francis House.
Listen here!

First things first: I am not the guy your waiter brings the wine to for inspection at the fancy dinner; I’m not the one to waft and swirl the full glass with its dark-red, purple hues and report that this particular vintage “delivers complex varietal flavors of cherries and blackberries, with a promise of herbs.” So I can’t speak to the steward’s assessment that the miracle wine at Cana of Galilee is qualitatively better than the wine that came before it that night. You’ve already impressed me when the bottle price hits double-digits. I’m betting most of you, dear college students, feel me. Not finding myself in a position to challenge the steward, I accept his verdict without protest and proceed to posit to you tonight that the wine’s being better - that the wine is good wine - is as significant to the miracle as the discovery that there’s new wine in the jars at all.

I should start by confessing that, for most of my life, the detail of the wine’s quality has largely struck me as beside the point of the story, save for the obvious that, if Jesus was going to go to the trouble of turning water to wine, of course it would be good. I largely followed Mary on this count, sharing her concern that running out of wine would have been an embarrassment to the bridegroom. Good wine or bad, at least now there’s enough. There’s enough to cover up for the bridegroom who didn’t plan well - after all, hadn’t the bride warned him that certain individuals of his family could really throw them back? Or maybe, as the bridegroom realized they were down to the dregs, he began to wonder if his dad hadn’t been right after all, that if he had applied for that corporate position and forgone a career in nonprofits, he would have had more than enough to fund this tenuous open bar. Maybe he got himself caught in the place that is familiar to us, somewhere between satisfying social conventions and putting on airs. Money, status, proving one’s worth - I’m sure you can add to the reasons folks worry that they might not have enough for the party. Might not be enough for the party. Never mind that deep down he knows what you and I know, too, that being a good spouse, father, mother, sister, brother, friend entails more than picking up a tab. 

In any case, the bridegroom is surprised and more than a little relieved when the steward shows up with something other than the not new to him news that he’s been found out for a fraud who didn’t have enough.

As the two men talk, Mary and Jesus watch on from the sidelines. When Mary notices the dread fall off the groom’s face, her shoulders relax, too, and she sneaks a smile up at Jesus. “Thanks.” Jesus, though, continues to watch the steward, the groom, and their exchange with interest. Noticing this, Mary looks up and, as the conversation goes on - as the steward grows more animated and begins to point to the glass with amazement - Mary grows worried. “Oh no.” She looks up to Jesus. “What in God’s name have you done?” Jesus gives a smile of his own and rolls his eyes up to the sky before walking away. “Aw, Mom,” he whispers, “we’re just getting started.”

The miracle of the miracle is not that there’s enough to keep drinking. It’s not enough that there’s enough. This is where the quality - the good wine - comes in. As the steward explains, the tradition of the lesser wine is in part a function of not wasting good wine on drunks, and exactly because it was a function of not wasting good wine on drunks, it is also a signal that the party is, for all intents and purposes, already over. 

We know these cues; we need these cues; and the world is full of these cues. Because one minute you’re sitting at your table waiting for wedding cake and the next minute what had moments ago been a respectable party is now a mosh pit of people in various states of clothed-ness. Because parties don’t adjourn so much as devolve. Nothing wrong with that, but grandma hasn’t come for that. We need cues. Growing up, it was my dad, subconsciously rattling his keys in the doorway to signal he was ready to go. In Beethoven’s day, it was the exaggerated trill that signaled to the orchestra the cadenza was over. I have a friend who, when she’s ready for the party she’s hosting to be over, simply leaves the table and starts to shower. Cues. Lesser wine was a social cue to the respectable types that the party was over.

“What have you done?” Mary whispers. What Jesus has done is thrown social convention a curveball and injected a healthy dose of uncertainty into the partygoers. No one knows what to expect. You don’t have to know where the miracle of where the new wine came from - like the water boys did - to know you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s not that there’s enough to end with dignity; the new gift in their midst has called into question the ending itself. 

As the wobbly attendants pause to drink it all in, the wine in their glasses begins to speak the old stories of surprises by which God had challenged the certainty and imagination of God’s people in generations past, other miracles of non-endings: the laughter of Sarah betraying her fear and disbelief as God announced the promise of new life; the trembling of Joseph’s brothers as they stood before the brother they’d left for dead, receiving through tears the forgiveness that came with Joseph’s conviction that what they had meant for evil God had worked for good, that this was not the end; the waters parting before a terrified Moses, the invitation to walk through the sea. All of these are there, in the cup. They look up from their glasses as if back called home.

And, of course, in John’s gospel, this wedding marks the beginning of a return to the surprises of God that challenge our certainty: there will be the woman caught in adultery, the certainty of sin, Jesus’ protection of the woman from those who would condemn her, and the unexpected forgiveness that will leave her awash with new life and her condemners dismayed; there will be Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the certainty of death, the scorn of the people, the unforgettable words, “I am resurrection and I am life,” saith the Lord. And with them, words that make the new wine sweeter, “Lazarus, come out!” 

Over and again, Christians find ourselves unable to name the end, because we believe the mischievous wedding crasher who wrecked social conventions that night is himself the Beginning and the End, calling us all up and into the story of God.

Desmond Tutu says it this way: “The Christian faith is hopelessly optimistic because it is based on the faith of a guy who died on a Friday and everybody said it was utterly and completely hopeless – ignominious – defeat. And on Sunday, He rose.” 

Where are you certain about the end? Lots of folks this week certain about the end of the Anglican Communion, with plenty of corresponding certainties about the end of where and in whom God will act. More of us, like the groom, are certain that we don’t have enough in ourselves for the things that matter most. Like Mary, we pray for a little extra help, though, like the groom, we may be content simply to receive the little extra that will get us off stage before we get caught. Dare we pray for God to act and lead in ways that both keep us on stage and open up the story beyond our ability to predict it? After all, in the end, it’s not our party. It’s God’s party. Happily, if incredibly, you and I are on God’s guest list.

To receive the new wine at God’s party is to lose our control; is to lose the certainty of the world’s old cues; is to drink from the unpredictable cup Christ calls forgiveness; is to go into places skunked with sin and death and other signs that the party is over and stand expectant of the presence of God. 

For “[t]he Christian faith is hopelessly optimistic because it is based on the faith of a guy who died on a Friday and everybody said it was utterly and completely hopeless – ignominious – defeat. And on Sunday, He rose.”


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