January 17, Second Sunday after the Epiphany:
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
Last week we were at a baptism. Today we’re at a wedding.
These two events share a commonality that is often overlooked.
When I meet with parents seeking to have their children baptized (or when I meet with adults seeking baptism—it happens, occasionally), and when I meet with adults doing the premarital work that I require, we always have a similar conversation about what happens in the rituals.
I point out the similarities between the sacrament of baptism and the sacramental rite of marriage.
Because both are markers of a relationship.
Both are public declarations of how individuals—with our communal support—are promising to live out those relationships.
We know that every child that is born is created by God, and anyone who has ever been in the presence of a newborn knows deep down that they are not merely creatures of God, but also children of God.
They are in a relationship with God. A relationship that exists prior to baptism and continues after baptism. The sacrament doesn’t initiate the relationship, anymore than marriage initiates the relationship between two consenting adults (at least not in cultures where arranged marriages are frowned upon).
That relationship—between God and the child, and between the two adults seeking marriage—already exists.
The sacraments which we enact together never create something out of nothing.
But they do mark that these individuals—and the community that surrounds and supports them—are promising to live out that relationship in a particular way. As a Christian…as a married couple. And even more importantly they remind us of the ongoing relationship with God, because God shows up in those sacraments.
God is present, and real, and active in the materials of the sacrament (the water, the wine, the bread) and in the community that gathers to participate in the rite.
God shows up.
We know this because part of the practice—part of how we continue to maintain and grow in our ongoing relationship with God is to regularly participate in Eucharist—Communion. We renewed that promise last week, remember?—“do you promise to continue in the apostles’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?”
We show up and God shows up.
Or we show up to be reminded that God is always present.
That’s why, in many ways I think this wedding story is really about Communion.
About who shows up and who is involved and how they come to recognize the real presence of Christ.
We’re back in John, so we know—as I’ve mentioned here before—that we’re dealing with a lot of mystical signs and not a lot of historical fact.
The wedding at Cana comes very early in John. And is “the first of the signs” that reveal God’s glory through Jesus. And like all signs in John, it’s a little tricky to read.
First there is this strange conversation between Jesus and his mother.
When the wine gives out, Mary doesn’t make a request, she simply reports to Jesus, “They have no wine.”
Now, as a former actor, I know that there is a whole range of ways to deliver that line. But John doesn’t give stage directions. And Jesus’ reaction seems a bit of an over-reaction. In effect he says, “woman, stay out of my business.” [Countryman, The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel. p. 28]
Then he goes on to talk about his “hour” not yet being here. Probably what this means is that providing wine at this banquet is not part of the grand scheme of cosmic reconciliation that John’s Jesus—the Logos—has in mind.
But what happens next, I think, is really fascinating.
Mary doesn’t tell him to change the water into wine. She doesn’t even give specific instructions to the servants, what she says is incredibly vague in the Greek—something like, “Anything at all that he tells you, do.”
Then there’s this pregnant pause with the description of these really large jars.
Then he says, “fill the jars with water.” And they do.
Then he says, “draw some out and take it to the chief steward.” And they do.
Jesus doesn’t just simply turn water into wine.
It is only when the steward tastes it that it’s revealed that somewhere in the process of filling up the jars, ladling it out, and carrying it to the wine steward it had become wine.
And not just any wine, but “the good stuff.” Somewhere in that process—or because of that whole process—God’s real presence is revealed and recognized.
What happens here each week?
The community gathers. Bread and wine are brought to the altar, along with ourselves, our souls and bodies, our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Customarily, a little water is added to the wine. The presiding priest—and that’s really what the priest does—we preside, because we are all celebrants, and the priest presides over the celebration—the presider says prayers on behalf of the community. All this we affirm in the great AMEN. And what happens? God shows up. Or rather Christ is revealed to be really and fully present in our midst, in the bread and wine, and in the gathered community.
That’s what this story revealed to me this week. That Christ works through the materials of bread and wine and water, and through us, the servants, the stewards—Christ works though all of it to reveal God’s real, abiding, and active presence in our lives.
And it only happens when we’re all gathered.
Communion only happens in community.
This sacrament revealing the real presence of Christ that we participate in each week is a sign—an icon—of the eschaton—that heavenly banquet where all of creation is fully reconciled with God.
We experience the echoes of that fullness here as we become aware of Christ’s real presence among us. We also experience the emptiness, the space, of those who will be there, but who are not here.
When we are not all here, we are all poorer for it. We miss the choir (Kim), we miss the children, we miss the individuals who can’t make it, we miss those who have moved, those who have died. And we miss those who are not yet here those who are still waiting for an invitation to the banquet.
Each week before the Sunday service the choir and the altar party gathers and prays this prayer, which I’ve adapted from a prayer of welcome by Ms. Valecia Harriman found in the book Women’s Uncommon Prayers.
“Holy Spirit living within us, guide our hearts and minds as we welcome today all those who worship at All Saints Parish. Give us discerning hearts, so that everyone who enters this holy space feels welcomed in the spirit of your love. Help us to recognize each person as an individual sent by you to enrich the worship, fellowship, and ministry of this community of faith. And most of all, O God, let this be a place of love and acceptance of all your children; in the name of your child, our Savior Jesus Christ.”
We pray this because as Paul points out, we have each been given a variety of gifts, and we need to be open to receive the gifts that other’s have. We continually need to learn and practice sharing the gifts that we have been given more and more freely and generously.
We bring all our gifts here, along with our doubts and anxieties, and pour them, like water, into the jars of our sacraments, so that they will be transformed by God’s grace and Christ’s real presence, and put to re-inspired use out in the world, helping to bring God’s intoxicating dream of peace and justice and love into a reality. Amen.