There is one particular memory I have from Forest Hill’s pilgrimage to Nicaragua three years ago. We were taking a day trip out of Managua, the capital, into the country side, the forest, I dare say jungle. The roads were in bad condition and we were all crammed into this van – as I remember the air conditioning was not working, or not working well.
We finally reached our destination, something that looked like a tiny village with farmer’s shacks scattered around – chickens everywhere, a big sow lying the mud, feral looking cats and dogs licking their lips as they eyed me – fresh meat. Certainly not a place that would conjure joy, community, wealth, comfort, peace, health. However, this village made crafts of delicate beauty many of which are sold at the Ten Thousand Village sale that we host every December.
Yet we were met by the most hospitable people who shared a meal with us, and together, once we got over the initial hesitancy to try out our halting Spanish and English, we actually had a party. There was dancing – there are videos (but they are not on YouTube yet.) There was an incredible abundance of joy in the midst.
I found myself walking beside a vivacious and very bright teenage girl who was from the village and somehow I communicated my question to her which was something like: “This is all wonderful, this village thing, but where do you want to go to college, what about your future?” Her reply surprised me – she said that she really wanted to stay in that village and become a leader and bring prosperity to it.
There was an abundance of confidence, an abundance of energy and joy, of hope, of power, really that has stayed with me to this day. I remember the joy, I remember the hope, I remember the hospitality and generosity. I remember the party that seemed to resonate with the Kingdom of God.
Throughout scripture we read passages, parables and stories that describe the kingdom life, the presence of God among us, the heavenly glory. And again and again what we read is that the divine reality is revealed not in political power, not in wealth and prestige, not in theological precision but at a party – be it a wedding party, or a reunion, a reception or festival. Where there is joy in community and an abundance of good spirits – this is where the glory of God is revealed, where the manifestation of the divine is seen.
I don’t know where or when Christians got so darned serious.
Think of the passage before us today -yes, it is very symbolic and very John-like. “On the third day,” it begins – what does that bring to mind? (Yes, you can answer):The Resurrection. And I am sure John meant to call that to mind. When the gospel writer has Jesus say “My hour has not yet come.” It is a clear reference to the crucifixion. (“The six stone water jars for the Jewish rite of purification” have kept commentators guessing for years.)
The dialogue is a bit stiff: Mary says: “They have no wine.” Jesus responds: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” If I would have spoken like that to my mother…well, well!
But really, what is this story about? What is the lasting image?
There is a party going on with revelers who are getting drunk and then the good wine comes out. A hundred and eighty gallons of it!
And it is Jesus doing his thing, this whole Dionysian, Bacchanal thing, that reveals the glory of God, the presence of God. Remember in the earlier passage in John when Jesus is followed by some folk and he turns and looks at them and asks, “What are you looking for?” (Vs. 38). They say to him, “Where are you staying?” and Jesus says, “Come and see.”
The disciples want to be where Jesus is, where the spirit of God is. And really, don’t you want to find that place, to feel that place, to see that place where God is present, where Jesus is made real among us? I know I do and I often see it here, among you.
That is our yearning, to experience the kingdom incarnated, touched, made real. And this passage says God is present when there is abundance, and folks are drunk – besides themselves on the very best.
That is a powerful thought. Faith isn’t about theology – it is about presence, abundance, moments – where you both forget yourself for a time and allow yourself to be most fully – where your heart is alive.
In the midst of economic distress. In the midst of sickness and pain. In the midst of depression and devastation (did you read that article in the Plain Dealer this past week?), in the midst of war and rumors of war, in the midst of natural disasters like in Haiti. In the midst, in the midst of life, the “going through” of life – and remember “going through” means suffering because we are not protected from any of it – where do you bump into God, into the reality of Jesus, the presence of the glory? You find joy in community – not in being isolated – but at a party.
Now I don’t want to be misunderstood for I know the very real sickness of alcoholism, and the struggle to stay sober one day at a time. This passage doesn’t help. But for many alcoholics who have found their sobriety in community, they have an ever better wine, aged to perfection. And we know the sociological pathology of binge-drinking on campuses by the under-aged.
And so I am not for an instant saying that the Bible teaches we should self-medicate to dull the pain or not be sensitive and hospitable to those for whom wine is a dangerous path.
But on the other hand, we mis-interpret the faith when we think it is all about formality, and structure, and seriousness and decorum – and churches splitting hairs on vocabulary and orthodoxy – about who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is not.
It is like the Grinch, standing on Mt. Crumpit about to dump the whole sled of Christmas gifts that he got from Whoville – and he scratches his head and thinks: “Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” Maybe Jesus, maybe faith, maybe religion – means a little bit more than what you can think through and argue for – it is perhaps a bit more a matter of the heart, of location, of community.
For Sunday sermons, Clover and I preach on a few verses or a limited passage. But the right way to read the Bible is to read it in larger chunks, I think, in order to get broader contexts and to have one passage play off the other. That’s how it becomes living word, right?
Well, what is interesting to me is that in chapter 2 of John’s gospel we have our passage describing a drunken wedding feast and the very next passage Jesus is going ballistic at the moneychangers at the temple. That juxtaposition is really revealing, I believe. Jesus is much more judgmental about the structures of institutions and the formalities of faith then he is about a good party with good friends.
In Joseph Heller’s classic book Catch 22 he describes one character who is a brilliant scholar with these words: “He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it.” I think this describes many of us at times. We know everything about everything but fail to enjoy anything, particularly our faith. H.L. Mencken once said about our forebears, the Puritans: “Puritanism is the haunting fear that somebody, somewhere is having a good time.”
So I want to lift up today a thought. I wonder if we are not called to party more? Seriously! To gather in places where there is joy and abundance hospitality, and yes, even abundant wine – and good conversation, and laughter and dancing – those times when we are beside ourselves (almost literally) drawn beyond our tight ego-centrism into communities of gladness. (And for an introvert like me that is quite an agitation.) And I will say that you all do a pretty good job of living the “High” life of the kingdom.
I am picturing myself at an 8th-grade dance, too self-conscious to ask that pretty girl across the room. Just standing there, frozen. And to think that Jesus calls us to the dance, to the party, to be ourselves and beside ourselves, vulnerable and without our wits – forming the beloved community of inclusion and joy.
This is the Sunday when we celebrate the birthday of Dr. King. I have felt his spirit in my preparation of this sermon during this week because really what his ministry was about, what his life was about, what his preaching was about, what his dream was about and what his death was about – was breaking down the barriers and forming beloved communities of grace and joy – of agitating the dispossessed to get drunk on the power of the spirit, claiming their place at the party, and agitating the powerful to get off their thrones, extend the boundaries, and join the festivities.
And even though he sought, like Jesus, to overturn the tables of institutions and structure, King believed that the party was for all. He knew that the best wine was still to be served in the community of all God’s children, who all have a place.
In this country we have come a long way – but still…who is not being invited to the party?
We are still a nation divided by race – too many parties are still segregated.
We are a denomination that still doesn’t allow Gay and Lesbian people into the closed party of leadership.
We are still a world separated by race, and creed and color – where we still do judge people by the color of their skin, or how they wear their pants and what they put on their heads – instead of the content of their character – oh, no the party is still closed to far too many.
We are still a country in which too many people are poor, and too many children are in danger, and the good wine is drunk by those who can afford it and “Boone’s Farm” still downed by the bum – oh yes, the party is not open to everyone and the good wine is still hoarded.
But we have a vision, and we have a hope, and we have a Savior, and we have a community.
And we have each other.
Let “freedom ring” and the let the “good times roll” from the “prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire… from the might mountains of New York…from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania…from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado… from the curvaceous slopes of California… and from Stone Mountain of Georgia and Lookout Mountain of Tennessee and from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside.”
My Lord and my God – Let the good times roll and the best wine be served so that the glory of the Almighty might be revealed.
So be it.