“When the Ordinary Becomes Sacred”
Sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
January 20, 2013
Our assigned lectionary Gospel text for today is the familiar story of what is known at Jesus’ first miracle: the changing of water into wine at a wedding in the small Galilean town of Cana. As you hear it this morning, I simply ask you to listen to it carefully as if you were hearing it for the first time.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
It was just an ordinary wedding. No more or less special than any other wedding at the start. Just two people from a small village in Galilee, (we still don’t even know their names), tying the knot before a large group of their family, friends, and neighbors. It would have been quite a crowd. The ceremony and subsequent celebration would have lasted several days. For a celebration like that, in a culture like that, you needed lots of wine. I suppose in a culture like ours you might need a lot of wine, too. But they needed it as part of the ceremony as well as for the celebration. Not only did it function to bring joy and gladness, but it was necessary for the ritual observance. And it was the groom’s responsibility to make sure the wine didn’t run out.
Running out of wine would have been an unmitigated disaster. From that moment on, a couple would have been looked at askance. It would have been the talk of the town. People would have pointed at them, whispered behind their backs. “See those two? The wine ran out at their wedding! They’ll never make it. They’re doomed from the start. The wine gave out at their wedding!”
The second chapter of John’s Gospel puts us right in the middle of just such a crisis. A real disaster in the middle of an ordinary wedding. The wine has given out. Mary is there, and so are Jesus and his disciples, and she calls him over. “They have no wine,” she tells him. “Woman, what have you do with me? My hour has not yet come,” he responds. But she forges ahead anyway, telling the servants to do whatever he asks, not taking his “No” for an answer.
And you know the rest of the story. He tells the servants to fill the six stone jars with water, ordinary water. They do. He tells them to dip it out and take it to the chief steward. They do. The chief steward tastes it and is amazed but he’s got a perfectly reasonable explanation – he doesn’t know what has happened behind the scenes. He goes to the bridegroom and says, essentially, “Hey buddy, why have you been holding back all the good stuff until after the guests are drunk?”
“This was the first of Jesus’ signs,” John’s gospel goes on to say. And, “his disciples believed in him.” His disciples believed in him? Believed what exactly? That he had just performed a fabulous party trick? That he would have made an awesome caterer? That he was a pretty special guy? Of course, it was not so much what they believed about him, as it was that they believed in him. It is good to have someone believe in you, believe that there is possibility in you, even if you’re not Jesus. Just ask some of our Dreamers.
One of my colleagues, when asked to sum up the gospel in seven words or less, wrote, “We are who God says we are.”[i] It’s good to have someone believe in you. God believes in you.
John’s Gospel calls this miracle a sign. Sign of what? Well, it’s a sign that God’s presence somehow dwells in Jesus. It’s a sign that God can break into the ordinary world of human beings; that God can take an unmitigated disaster and transform it from the last word into something better than before. Scholars say that it’s meant to show how Jesus takes the old wine of Jewish ritual purification and transforms it into the new wine of grace and abundance that is big enough for the whole world. Others talk about how this story is a foreshadowing of the cross – the ultimate disaster. How could anything be worse than seeing your leader die on a cross of shame? The wine must have seemed like it had run out indeed that day.
Gail O’Day says this in her commentary on John:
“This passage poses hard questions for the interpreter because the miracle challenges conventional assumptions about order and control. About what is possible. About where God is found and how God is known. The interpretive task is not to put the miracle in a framework which makes sense like the attempts of the steward in the story, but to free the faith community to receive the extraordinary gifts this miracle offers.”[ii]
The Wall Street Journal had an article about weddings this week[iii]: specifically about the growing trend of couples having more than one wedding: the American wedding and the Indian wedding – the West coast wedding and the East coast wedding so that family and friends on both coasts can be included. The state-recognized civil wedding and the religious one. The question that gets raised for these couples by their family and friends is, “Which wedding is the real one?”
Well, we are on the cutting edge here at Immanuel. Seven years ago, Al Jurkin and Kim Stansberry had not one wedding, but three. (Really more like two weddings and one massive Canadian reception!”) The first was a small ceremony, just about twelve of us, right here in this sanctuary. That was for legality’s sake, to get the paperwork done, to ease the immigration hassles. But then we had the bigger one with the wedding gown, the cake, the reception and the whole nine yards.
The question is, which of the two weddings was the real one? Which one was sacred? Well, you might say that both were, because they both took place in the sanctuary and because we invested deep meaning in both of them. Heck, I wrote a sermon for both of them. The Canadian celebration was in its own way sacred because it too was a celebration of love, surrounded by family and friends who couldn’t be here. It was in its way a recognition of God’s marvelous grace – a grace which challenges conventional assumptions about what is possible – bringing together Kim and Al, just as it brought together Bizzy and Michael, Lauren and Ben, Kennedy and Megan, and the names go on and on, and Brian and Christian.
There are a number of ways to define what it means to be sacred. But I like this definition: what makes something sacred is whether or not we attend to God in the midst of it.
So this sanctuary is sacred space, our labyrinth is meant to be sacred space, and the Assembly Hall where we have worship each Sunday evening is sacred space, too. Baptism is a sacred ritual, as is communion. But so, potentially, are all sorts of ordinary things, events and interactions in life. The time you take to really listen to another person, over a cup of coffee or on a car ride or sitting beside his or her hospital bed… The time you take to hear another’s pain, to share in his or her celebration, this is sacred, too. It’s God breaking into the ordinary.
There is the album of photos your mom made for you, chronicling the week she spent with your children when they were little. They’re grown and she’s dead now and every time you pull it out and look through it, it makes you cry. The tears are your indication that it’s a sacred thing.
The 50th wedding anniversary celebration my family had for my mom and dad this past Thanksgiving – that was sacred. Any moments you take to be “present to” and grateful for the gift of life are sacred moments. Setting apart time for rest, to disconnect from the hustle and bustle, this too can be sacred.
Frederick Buechner is so good at writing about the sacredness of life – and how it is all tied up in stories, our stories and the stories of others. It is in the hearing and telling of these stories that we sense how God is at work in the world. He wrote,
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness, touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”[iv]
It’s not just the big days that are sacred, but every day can be if we keep our eyes open and our ears pricked. Every encounter has the possibility of revealing God’s glory, especially if it strengthens us to take on the challenge of risking, living and caring for others.
The word sacred is tied to the word sacrament. I’m fond of telling couples I marry that, even though the Reformed tradition tells us there are only two, I think we should regard marriage as a sacrament because like baptism and communion, marriage can be a visible sign and seal of God’s invisible grace.
What makes marriage sacramental is not so much the wedding day, however, but how it is lived out. Oh, not every marriage works, and there is abuse and infidelity, incompatibility and all of that, and there are times when being together is worse than being apart. I know that. But I also know that way too many marriages go by the wayside way too easily.
What makes marriage sacred is what happens when the wine has run out. It’s what happens when you’ve been together long enough to get really disappointed in each other. When you’ve been together long enough to get on each other’s last nerve, and the nerve after that. To know exactly which buttons to push. To be aware of the other person’s worst personality flaws, and yet you somehow have the grace to hang in there with each other, anyway. That’s what makes marriage sacred.
Perhaps my favorite Garrison Keillor story from the fictional town of Lake Wobegon is the one about Pastor Inqvist and the 5 Day Rural Lutheran Clergy Conference in Orlando Florida. I won’t share the story in its entirety – but I commend it to your listening someday.[v]
The story goes that Pastor Inqvist was all set to go to the 5 day Rural Lutheran Clergy Conference in Orlando, Florida – and he and his wife Judy were really looking forward to it.
It was a close vote in the Deacons’ meeting on whether or not to approve it, opposed mostly by those who weren’t too sure about Pastor Inqvist when he came on 13 years ago, and after 13 years they were sure they weren’t sure about him. They thought he was too liberal, they thought that he was soft on Catholicism, that there was too much of “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.” in his preaching.
Val Tollefson was the one who led the opposition, but the trip was approved. All through a cold Minnesota December parishioners kept telling Pastor Inqvist, “It’s a cold one today, yah, but you, you got that trip to Orlando to look forward to.” It bothered Pastor Inqvist to think that this was on their minds, that anybody could begrudge him this.
So when Val Tollefson spoke up on a Monday night at the board meeting in which they were dealing with the church budget (the night before Pastor Inqvist and his wife were to leave for Orlando) and he said, “When I see those pictures of starving people, I wish we could do more for world relief, you know, trim some of the non-essentials out of our budget, travel and this sort of thing,” Pastor Inqvist replied, I suppose we could cancel my trip to Orlando, starting tomorrow.” He did that hoping that somebody would object. But no one said anything, until Val said, “Okay then, if that’s how you feel.”
It wasn’t how he felt, but it was what he said. He felt miserable, sick, and so did his wife Judy when he told her later that night about what he’d done. She was not happy. The next morning they spoke in clipped tones to one another until she finally let him have it. “I guess what interests me,” she said, “is your tendency to make noble sacrifices on behalf of both of us without checking with me about it. It’s wonderful to turn the other cheek, but you don’t have to turn mine too. If you want to be a martyr that’s fine, but the great martyrs went off to the martyrdom alone. They didn’t invite their wives along. I wish you would have asked me,” she said. And then she began to weep, cry, like a song of womanly grief and love. He sat and listened to her, this woman who had borne and helped raise his children, this beautiful woman with whom he had been looking forward to this trip for so long.
He went up to bed, sick with the flu. The rest of the day: silence.
Later that night, Father Emil came over with a bottle of French cognac,” to pay a call on the sick,” he said. And when Pastor Inqvist asked him how he was doing, the priest said, “I’m fine, but you! I hear you got snookered out of a trip to Orlando!”
Wednesday morning, Val Tollefson called and said, “I feel kind of bad about the other night. I suppose if you got on a flight tonight you could make it for the Thursday meetings and come back on Friday.” And Pastor Inqvist said, “No, no that’s all right, Val but I appreciate it.”
Now here is where I want to get Keillor’s words just right, because they are so beautiful.
“He looked across the table at his wife who was smiling at him. She said “I love you, you know.” He said, “I love you too.” He said “I’ll make it up to you somehow.” She said, “I really do love you.” And she put her hands on his head. And stood behind him. And he felt tears come to his eyes. It’s an amazing thing to be loved by someone,” Keillor concludes. “It’s almost just about enough, to be loved by someone. Almost just about enough.”
What does it mean to be loved by someone? What does it mean to love someone? Well what that might cause you to do is all tied up with what is sacred as well. It is a sacred thing to try to match how we behave with what we believe and to do it in the name of love.
Frederick Buechner is right that we do well to pay attention to when tears come to our eyes. Sometimes a place becomes sacred because it is the scene of a tragedy, a terrible disaster, something that has caused us to weep. And how we respond to that disaster can be sacred, too. Such is the case with what happened in Newtown, Connecticut back in December. In the aftermath of the massacre in Newtown, a lot of people have sought ways to respond. Not all of them agree on the best way.
One of the great things about Immanuel, about this community of faith, is that we don’t all see eye to eye on every political issue. We have a diverse congregation. We don’t always agree nor do we have to. The people who disagree with us on a particular issue are not crazy, moronic wing nuts, they are good, Christian people who have different points of view on the role of government for instance.
I know a lot of people who are advocating for a ban on assault weapons – and those who think that’s not a good idea. Some are writing letters pushing for the ban, and for sensible gun legislation and doing so because they feel it is their sacred duty. Others won’t.
My own daughter, who is a member of my wife’s church, Trinity in Arlington, was so moved in the aftermath of the violence in Newtown that she went to their Session and asked them to approve a letter writing campaign to legislators, a letter writing campaign pushing for an assault weapons ban. They’ll be holding it in the church. Martha is organizing that campaign, preparing a slide show on violence, and readying materials, and she’s doing that because she is hearing a sacred call to make a difference.
I’m proud of her for the way she in her own understanding is responding to what she understands as a sacred call.
In Jesus’ name.
[i] Nadia Bolz-Weber “We Are Who God Says We Are: The Gospel in Seven Words” in The Christian Century blog, March 2, 2012. You can find the post here: http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2012-03/we-are-who-god-says-we-are
[ii] Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 540.
[iii] “Two Weddings, One Happy Couple,” Wall Street Journal.com, January 16th, 2013. You can read the article here: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424127887323468604578245782119353410-lMyQjAxMTAzMDEwNzExNDcyWj.html?mod
[iv] Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, (New York: Harper Collins, 1983).
[v] What follows is largely paraphrased from Garrison Keillor’s “Pastor Ingqvist’s Trip To Orlando” reproduced on compact disc by Dan Rowles. The original material is copyright by Garrison Keillor and Minnesota Public Radio and was shared on his show A Prairie Home Companion in 1985. You can listen to it on the CD Gospel Birds and other stories of Lake Wobegon.